Everyday life in Nishchintapur was tedious, but not dull. Love, laughter, gossip, neighborhood squabbles, at times, taking part in protest rallies demanding proper wages, were a part of everyday life. But the fire changed everything. Many garment workers died on the evening of November 24, 2012 when a fire broke out in Tazreen Fashions. According to the government, 112 workers have died but many family members have been unable to identify their beloved ones as many bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Fifty-three unidentified bodies were buried at Jurain graveyard. Instead of taking measures to force Tazreen’s owner to publicly release the list of workers who working on the shift when the fire broke out, the government and the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) opted for DNA testing as the technique for identifying dead workers. The BGMEA propaganda machinery made it seem that getting a test done was simple, easy. But I came across grieving families walking around the factory premises, asking all and sundry, “what is a DNA test?” “Where can I get this test done?” “But my wife’s missing, if I cannot be DNA tested, how do I identify her?” “My sister is missing, can I get a blood test done?” As they navigated between different bureaucracies (BGMEA, DC office, Labor Ministry), and spent their hard earned money, family members of Tazreen’s victims learnt about the social nitty gritty of the DNA test.
Two months later, on January 30, 2013 the National Forensic DNA Profiling Laboratory submitted their report to the labor ministry, it had identified 37 workers buried in Jurain graveyard. I walked around the graveyard with the family members of those victims fortunate to have been identified: graveyard number 11 belonged to Kabir Hossain’s wife Lucky Begum, number 5 was Shahnaz’s, number 47, in the last row, was Dulal’s wife, Shahida’s. But many are still missing, more than the numbers buried. Rokeya Begum’s daughter Hena is still missing. Some labor rights activists had told her to bring Hena’s toothbrush, hairclips and other belongings to the DNA laboratory. But the DNA lab sent her back. Only biological samples count, they said, we need a body to collect samples from.
The memories of living family members don’t count. Personal belongings of dead and missing workers embedded in stories lovingly related to me by family members don’t count, Mahfuja’s wedding sari, or the black and yellow striped shalwar kamij still waiting for Sultana at the tailoring shop. Only fleshly remains can prove their existence, flesh that had burnt away with the factory fire leaving behind charred bones and skeletons.
I write these stories of missing Tazreen workers as a form of protest, protesting against the reduction of their lives into mere bodies. I write these stories to protest against the existing bureaucratic processes that nullify the social lives of missing workers. I write these stories to describe the void that has been created in the lives of family members of Tazreen’s victims since November 24, 2012. I write these stories as a tribute to our sisters, to tell them, no, we have not forgotten you. We won’t. Never, ever.
Jabbar and Saddam, who are brothers, stood outside Tazreen Fashions helplessly as the fire raged inside the building all nightlong. Their wives, Mitu and Mahfuja were locked inside the factory. Next morning, Saddam’s wife Mitu’s body was found. She had probably died of asphyxiation. There were no burn marks, she even had her sandals on. But Jabbar could not recognize his wife from the bodies lying on the floor of Nischintapur Primary School’s veranda. Several well wishers whispered in his ear, go, claim one of the charred bodies. But his grieving heart didn’t allow him to do so. Instead, he continued searching, opening the black zipper of one body-bag after the other. Mahfuja must be here, he kept hoping against hope. Jabbar and Mahfuja’s was an arranged marriage. He first saw her photograph. Weeks later, when he went to meet her in person, she was with five other friends, all wearing blue and white school uniforms. Even though they looked alike it took him only a few seconds to recognize his wife to-be, Mahfuja. To onlookers, the bodies in the body bags looked the same. Charred bones and skeleton. Jabbar was unbelievably distraught, how could he not identify his beloved wife? When Jabbar showed me this photo of Mahfuja’s, his face brightened, he smiled and said, “this was the photograph that my mother showed me before our marriage.”
Mother and daughter, Rokeya Begum and Hena had lived in a cluster of houses right across the road from Tazreen Fashions. Rokeya’s husband had abandoned her when Hena was only three months old, leaving behind the two, with no one else but each other. Several years ago, when Rokeya developed heart disease, Hena became the breadwinner. It wasn’t easy for Rokeya to get Hena a garments factory job because she was underage. Neighbors say she was only fifteen, but she looked even younger. Floor managers would hide child workers like Hena behind big boxes and cartons when buyers would visit the factory. But hiding behind no carton or box could have saved her from the raging fires. Rokeya says, I’m sure she’s still alive somewhere, maybe she’s unconscious, I’m sure she’ll mutter my name the moment she regains consciousness. Neighbors ask her, how do you get by these days. By drinking my tears, she quietly replies.
Shila was good at school, she’d passed her school certificate exams with good grades. After the exam, she even got admitted to a college in Narayanganj. Shila lost her father very early, her elder brother, Shah Alam meant the world to her. He had wanted her to complete college, to become a teacher like him. He had never thought she would become a garment factory worker. But during her college years, she became romantically involved with a “rascal”, they eloped, got married in Kuakata, neighbours spoke ill of them. Shah Alam went on, my mother and sisters denounced her. That is how she ended up in a garments factory. It took me a day to hear about the fire. Two days later, I went directly to the Dhaka Medical College, but unclaimed bodies had already been buried. They told me to give a blood sample instead, for DNA testing. But my experience at the DNA testing center was awful, the testing process is so biased. I’m a primary school teacher. They looked me up, from top to bottom, they repeatedly asked, are you sure Shila is your apon bon (blood-related sister). You see, they worked on the basis of stereotypes, my appearance didn’t match their ideas of the ‘garments factory type.’ If I’d been wearing a lungi, if I’d gone barefeet, they wouldn’t have hesitated, I would have been saved from the preliminary interrogation.
Rehana was married to an Awami League hitman. Her husband would often return home with blood splattered on his clothes. She left home one day with their two year old son, after helping herself to some money from his trunk. She left her son with her mother and came to Dhaka. It was 2007. She worked in different garment factories in Nischintapur before taking up work at Tazreen. She had wanted to excel in life, confides her brother Matin. She was planning to go to the Middle East as a migrant labor, she dreamt of buying a piece of land in Rajbari for her son from her earnings there. A few weeks before the factory fire, she had applied for a passport. Maybe its all waiting and ready to be picked up at the Dhaka Passport office, Matin remarks casually. He vividly remembers the night of the fire. My brother-in-law, Babul Mia received a frantic call from her, she had hurriedly said, “our factory is on fire, I don’t think I will be able to get out.” That was the last her family heard from her. The grief and loss of her family members don’t count. For the officials at the labor ministry, or at the BGMEA’s corporate headquarters, Rehana’s existence in noted only in numbers. Tazreen Fashions Card No. 1735. National Identification Card Number: 6027908148471. Rehana’s seven year old son has given a blood sample at the National Forensic DNA Profiling Center, the Lab identification number for that sample is ID3-12-BL-26. Two numbers and samples must match; one collected from the worker’s body burnt beyond recognition, the other, from her nine year-old son. Since Sumon, her living son is not proof enough, the DNA test report states, next to the Lab IDnumber: No Match Found.
Originally Published in New Age, 8 March, 2013